WASHINGTON – Top congressional leaders gathered in New York City Friday to show support for the city under the looming shadow of the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks in history.
"Over the years, New York has been called many things, from New Amsterdam to the Big Apple. Today, the people of the United States call it home," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., from the podium of Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan Friday.
More than 250 lawmakers descended on Manhattan Friday to convene a special joint session of Congress that is meant to be a show of solidarity with New Yorkers. They opened the session in Federal Hall, which was the site of the first congress in American history in 1790.
Vice President Dick Cheney joined House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in presiding over the session, with a huge American flag behind them. The speeches reflected the pain caused by the attacks, the healing of the city and a resolve to ensure that the U.S. does not go through such terror again.
"The wounds the terrorists inflicted were deep. But American resolve is even deeper. Let history's record that the terrorists failed," offered Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-N.D.
"They sought to attack America for what they thought was its greatest strength," he said, referring to material wealth, symbolized in the World Trade Center towers, now removed from the New York skyline.
"But they were wrong. It (strength) is all about the ideas enshrined in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights," and "our unwavering commitment to each other," said Daschle.
Although largely symbolic, many lawmakers say Friday's trip was a necessary statement of support for the city and its people as the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches.
Hastert made one of the only references to U.S. troops overseas who have been fighting for a year to reign in the various terrorist networks identified by the Bush administration as being linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We thank the Americans who serve in our nation's armed services who continue to work to bring these terrorists to justice," he said.
But most of the feelings expressed by lawmakers Friday seemed to be in awe of the bravery of New Yorkers in the face of such massive death. Close to 3,000 people lost their lives on that day. Most of their bodies have never been recovered.
"No matter how long we live, or whatever marks our time, we will never forget Sept. 11," declared House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
The message of support for New York's recovery was reinforced earlier Friday when Hastert and Lott rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange to reinforce support for the city.
The sense of history was underscored when the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain, delivered the invocation with the Bible used by George Washington to take the oath of office at his first presidential inauguration.
Security in the city is extremely tight, with hundreds of New York City police officers on overtime and the Capitol Police and Secret Service traveling from Washington to beef up the ranks.
The lawmakers left Federal Hall to lunch at the Regent Hotel with host Mayor Michael Bloomberg and later on tour Ground Zero, the site of the destroyed towers, where there will be a wreath-laying ceremony this afternoon.
Bloomberg said Friday that the session gives the city "our chance to say thank you to Congress and to the American people for the support they gave us. We couldn't have gotten through this without their efforts."
Lawmakers said the day would not be used for politicking by lawmakers eager to earn some bonus points on the campaign trail.
"The joint session will not be dealing with anything except commemorating the loss of life and the support of our fight against terrorism," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told The Hill newspaper Wednesday.
But some lawmakers had reservations about the trip, especially given the crush of unfinished business.
"I think Congress ought to be here, working," Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Thursday. "There's not anything that I can do by going up there. Lord knows, there's not anything more that can be said about our sorrow."
The last time Congress held such a joint session outside the Beltway was in 1987 when it commemorated the great compromise of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. While many members have already toured the area where the World Trade Center towers once stood, the trip from Washington so close to the one-year anniversary of the tragic events is sure to be a solemn one.
The last time Congress met in New York, in 1789-90, lawmakers watched as George Washington was inaugurated as the nation's first president. The chunk of sandstone flooring where Washington stood was on hand for Friday's event at Federal Hall, just blocks from the 16-acre site where the 110-story towers once stood.
New York was then the nation's capital. But lawmakers held their final session in New York on Aug. 12, 1790, having decided to move to Philadelphia for a decade while a new capital city was built in what became Washington.
There are 8 million people crowded into New York's five boroughs now. When Congress last met in the city, New York housed 29,000 people, most living on the southern tip of Manhattan so damaged Sept. 11.
For New Yorkers, having Washington lawmakers in town would give them a chance to see how the city has recuperated from its massive losses after terrorists slammed into the towers, killing almost 3,000 people, and crippling the economy in lower Manhattan and beyond in the year following.
According to a New York Post report Thursday, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 could end up costing the city a staggering $95 billion and result in the loss of 146,000 jobs, Comptroller Bill Thompson estimated.
"Due to the magnitude of the event and the complexity of factors involved in the long-term impact, it is difficult to attach a fixed number to the economic loss sustained by the city," Thompson told business leaders at a breakfast sponsored by the Association for a Better New York.
He said more than half the city's current $5 billion budget hole is a direct result of the attacks, as is $3 billion of the $6 billion budget gap for next year.
Craig Donner, spokesman for Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., told The Hill that the New York delegation was trying to encourage members to ditch the train back to Washington on Friday, and to at least take in a ball game or hit the nightlife before going home.
"We are trying to expand the number of events to get members to stay over the weekend," he said. "We want to show the progress New York has made and show that, despite the progress, New York will need help in the years ahead."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.